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They'd been high all weekend long — on Ecstasy, coke, mushrooms and acid — so there seemed little harm in doing one last bump of Special K while they packed up to leave their $5,000-a-night duplex in South Beach.
For now, as the three friends sipped their drinks and hypnotically watched their stacks of cash being counted right in front of them, Albert felt untouchable.When Albert Gonzalez was 12, he bought a computer with the allowance he had saved up working for his father, a landscaper.At first, his new hobby seemed a harmless distraction: He played video games — car racing and wrestling, mostly — and spent hours taking the computer apart and putting it back together."It was already like an obsessive vice," his mother, Maria, would later tell a judge.By the time he entered South Miami Senior High, the once-outgoing Albert had turned isolated and untalkative, his grades plummeting as he neglected his homework in favor of the huge programming textbook he had bought.He had stumbled across a community that shared not just his computer obsession but also his caustic humor and profound alienation in a way his real-life peers didn't get.
Albert and his online friends spent hours swapping tips on hacking, debating their favorite bands and trading booger jokes.But even stoned on industrial-grade horse tranquilizers, Albert Gonzalez remained focused on business — checking his laptop constantly, keeping tabs on the rogue operators he employed in Turkey and Latvia and China, pushing, haranguing, issuing orders into his cellphone in a steady voice."Let's see if this Russian asshole has what I need," he'd say calmly.The whites of his brown eyes had gone veiny from the K, but he was still the ringleader, still in control. He even had an insurance policy, one designed to keep him a step ahead of the federal agents charged with tracking cybercrime: For the past four years, Albert had been working as an informant for the Secret Service, helping federal agents to identify and bust other rogue hackers.Stephen somehow managed to climb the suite's glassed-in staircase and sit down in front of the laptop, but nothing he saw on the screen made any sense — his brain was scrambled beyond comprehension. His double life as a snitch gave him an inside look at how the feds try to safeguard the nation's computer data — and reinforced his own sense of superiority.Patrick Toey, 22, Albert's most loyal foot soldier, was lazing around the suite, staring at the Miami seascape through the two-story picture windows, letting his thoughts drift."Listen, I need you to do this now," Albert was saying in a firm voice as he set his laptop on the desk in the master bedroom upstairs. The task at hand seemed impossible, given their chemical impairment, but Stephen was notorious among hackers for his ability to dash off intricate code that could blast through even the most secure computer networks.